Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: Faith Begins By Letting Go” (“The New Normal”), Exodus 1:8-14, 2:5-10 (August 23, 2020)


Today, the lectionary draws our attention to the very beginning of the Exodus story. You may recall that at the end of Genesis, Joseph and his family were reunited in Egypt, with Joseph second only to Pharaoh in power and influence: a happy ending if there ever was one. Their descendants, the Hebrew people, flourished for years in their adopted homeland, and they built a very comfortable life for themselves. But by the beginning of Exodus, things have changed. We meet a new Pharaoh who “didn’t know Joseph”, who felt threatened by his descendants, and therefore decided to put a stop to their prosperity. He put them to work for the Egyptians.

We’re not talking about a little bit of light drudgery to remind the Hebrews who was in charge. No, the Pharaoh was instituting a brutal new normal for them. The descendants of Jacob couldn’t just wait it out until Pharaoh was in a better mood; they had to figure out a new way of life in order to survive. We, too, are currently faced with the challenge of adapting to what we’re increasingly aware is becoming our “new normal”. We aren’t being literally enslaved by the Pharaoh, but it feels like there are enough similarities in our situation that we could easily see ourselves in the story.

Genesis 1:8-14, COVID edition: “Now a new virus came to power that was unknown to the people. The virus said, ‘These human beings are too confident in their health. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, their immune systems will grow stronger, and if illness breaks out, they will be able to easily defeat us!’ As a result, the virus caused COVID-19 over the people to harass them with sickness. The people became ill and had to quarantine at home. But the more they were infected, the more the people wore face masks and social distanced, so that the virus started to look at the people with disgust and dread. So the virus became ruthless in infecting the people, and made their lives miserable with Zoom meetings and online school, forcing them to do all kinds of virtual things.”

Now, obviously that’s just a light-hearted reimagining of this story. The virus isn’t really sentient, and the situation isn’t nearly as dire for us as it was for the Hebrew people. We aren’t suffering abject exploitation and slavery, but we are in the midst of a new era. This weekend marks EXACTLY five months since Idaho went into lockdown and we began to worship virtually. While some things have continued to shift and change during that time, the novel coronavirus is still ravaging our country, and we’re still stuck in this limbo of not being able to worship the way we long to—with hugs and fellowship and singing. Like the Israelites, we, too, are trying to figure out how to live in this new reality. So we need to decide how we’re going to move forward faithfully in our new normal.

According to our hymn today, faith begins by letting go. Letting go is an important part of adjusting to any new situation: letting go of our cherished expectations, releasing old ideas of how we live out our identities, and relinquishing ultimate control to God. Moses’ mother had plenty that she needed to let go of at the beginning of Exodus. She had countless hopes and dreams for herself and for her son that died the moment the Pharaoh ordered state-sanctioned infanticide. In the new normal, she wouldn’t be able to be a mother to this baby. She wouldn’t be able to teach him about his heritage or the traditions of their faith. She wouldn’t even get to name him. She had to let him go both metaphorically and literally, placing him in a basket among the reeds and praying that God would take care of him. In order to move forward faithfully, she needed to give up so much that was precious to her.

In OUR new normal, we’ve already given up a great deal. We’ve given up congregational singing; we’ve given up gathering together as a whole; we’ve given up hugs and handshakes and high-fives. And yet—and I know this will be hard to hear—there’s still more that we need to give up. We need to give up the part of our identity that hinges on our warm welcome to Sunday morning visitors. If we’re not getting visitors in the building anymore, how do we continue to live out God’s call to hospitality? We need to release the expectation that fellowship and connection will just happen naturally. Are we all making a point to reach out to those we haven’t seen in a while to make sure that no one feels left behind or forgotten? We need to let go of the idea that church is what happens in person. These days, society is becoming increasingly virtual, so how do we share the good news and make disciples without relying on our shared physical space? Although it might feel like we’re letting go of the very things that make us faithful, the truth is that by willingly giving up that which is no longer possible, we challenge our faith to grow and create space for the Holy Spirit to move in new and unexpected ways.

Fortunately, the new normal isn’t entirely about giving things up. The second verse of the hymn explains that “Faith endures by holding on.” There’s plenty worth clinging to in the name of faithfulness. Although they had to let go of their sacred traditions, the Hebrew people still held tightly to the promises that God had made to Abraham years ago: that God would remain with them, and that they would one day receive as an inheritance the land in which they were immigrants. Pharaoh’s daughter clung to her sense of empathy and mercy, even though it required her to undermine her father’s order. And although Moses’ mother had to give up her dreams for what her relationship with her son would be like, she was able to hold onto the relationship itself by changing it, serving as Moses’ nursemaid.

We, too, have a great deal worth holding on to in our new normal. We must cling to God’s call on our lives, working to bring the love, mercy, and justice of Christ into the world even as the world itself changes. We must figure out how to preserve our relationships with our community and with one another, even as the way we relate to each other transforms. Most importantly, we must hold fast to the treasured memories and stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, reminding us of God’s faithfulness throughout human history and offering us hope in the middle of a seemingly hopelessness situation.

But even as we sift through our faith to decide when to hold on and when to let go, we must remember that no new normal is forever. No matter how dramatically pharaohs or viruses or circumstances change our lives, God is the one who gets to decide how the story really ends. And our faithful responses play an important role in how God’s will becomes reality. Because Moses’ mother was willing to release her expectations, and because Pharaoh’s daughter held fast to her compassion, Moses survived, and grew, and flourished, and eventually became the means through which God’s promise overcame Pharaoh’s era of brutality. The people’s suffering during that time was very real, and very difficult, and very traumatic…but it wasn’t the end. By letting go of some things and holding on to others, these women bravely kept God’s story moving forward towards its true end, the end that God desired.

We can do that, too. We can keep growing and learning through our shared struggles and prayers. We can bind up one another’s wounds so that we can keep moving forward along God’s path together. And when we finally find that “common place ripe with witness to God’s grace”, as the hymn says, when the new normal is finally behind us…what will we take with us from our time here? What will we have learned? How will we have grown? What things will we leave behind us permanently because they were hindering our ability to share the gospel? What traditions and practices will we carry into the future with us because we’ve discovered that they open the door to God’s Kingdom wider than we thought possible?

I don’t know. We’re still in the middle of figuring that out. But I do know that no matter what we wind up discovering, about ourselves or about God, if we give up that which doesn’t serve the Lord in this time and hold fast to that which does, we’ll emerge from this new normal with a clearer view of who we are and what God has planned for us. May it be so. Amen.

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